Camellias Stars of the Winter Garden

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Winter can be somewhat depressing for those of us who love to look out the windows and see a beautifully lush and colorful landscape. It seems as though the gardens and flowers we maintained through the warmer months have been washed in a sea of gray and brown. Not so inspiring.

But chilly doesn’t have to mean charmless.
Enter: Camellias. These evergreen queens of the winter landscape thrive in our region and add a burst of color and class to our otherwise empty garden beds. Beloved for their glossy and substantial foliage, elegant cold-season blooms and overall versatility, they really are the gem of the year-round garden.

They thrive in more acidic soils and prefer shade, making them great for filling in those difficult-to-cultivate spaces, and with so many varieties, there is a camellia for every landscape.

Camellia Types
Camellias are originally native to Southeast Asia where they’ve been a treasure of meticulous Japanese gardens for hundreds of years. Their blooms tend to come in shades of red, pink, and white with waxy evergreen foliage. In the United States, we primarily cultivate two species of camellias: Sasanquas and Japonicas. Sasanquas bloom from early to mid-season, beginning in late fall and continuing through the first part of winter.

Japonicas begin their blooming season in late winter and show off their color through the spring. Of course, each of these species has hundreds of hybrids. Planting a few carefully selected types will result in an almost year-round display of showy, eye-catching blossoms.

Basic Care
Maybe their reputation for being difficult plants to grow comes from their high-class, rose-like appearance. It’s really a myth that these shrubs are challenging, and they actually grow well with little attention as long as they are properly planted in the right spot.

While camellias can be planted in winter, it’s best to wait until spring so that they have time to take root before the cold weather comes. This is generally a good rule of thumb for anything you might want to plant.

white camellia

Choose a location in your yard with a lot of shade. That’s right—these beauties are shade lovers! If you’re like me, you’re constantly on the hunt for ways to fill out those darkened spaces and camellias make excellent candidates. Like a proper Victorian lady, they need to be sheltered from the hot midday sun. Some varieties can handle more sunlight than others—so do some research before planting—but most prefer a bit of sun in the morning, then cool, dappled light throughout the afternoon. They like the consistently moist soil that shade provides, but they don’t like wet feet, so you’ll want to make sure the soil is well-drained to prevent rot and disease. Nutrient-rich, organic material with a slightly high pH is ideal.

As with most garden shrubs and trees, correct planting is absolutely vital to healthy growth and a long lifespan (camellias can live for more than a hundred years). One of the more common planting mistakes is burying the plant too deep. So dig a hole that is just deep enough to cover the root ball. It’ll need to be at least twice as wide so that the roots can spread out. If the roots encircle the ball when removed from the pot, carefully cut the encircling roots and spread them away from the root ball. Fill the hole back in with healthy organic material, and water generously. Mulching will also aid in water retention, protect the roots from extreme temperatures, and prevent weeds from overtaking the space. Just be sure to keep the mulch out of direct contact with the stem.

As your camellias continue to grow, make sure they are watered regularly.

They do not handle drought well, especially during the blooming season. Otherwise, caring for them is pretty simple. They don’t typically require fertilizing, and they only need to be pruned for aesthetic purposes. Left to their own devices, they will likely grow quickly and bloom prolifically.

Camellias in the Landscape
Because of the multitude of varieties, camellias can serve a number of purposes in the landscape. They can grow to be quite large—between six and 12 feet in height and width! However, different varieties grow to different sizes, and most can be pruned to maintain your desired aesthetic.

Thanks to their thick, appealing foliage they make
great screens. They can be used as hedges for a little privacy from your neighbors or to hide unsightly fences and foundations.

Some varieties are prone to keeping a low, sprawling profile and can make for unique and attractive ground cover.

For a more formal focal point, they can be trained and shaped as small, winter-flowering trees. They can also be used as espaliers, growing up and spreading along flat, vertical surfaces such as walls. This requires a decent amount of work, but for those who enjoy pruning and training plants, camellias are a great choice. Sasanqua varieties work best for this purpose.

When thinking about adding them to a full, year-round landscape, consider planting camellias among azaleas and rhododendron, which have similar needs and structures. They can fill in the space with color when your camellias are out of bloom. Hydrangeas make another dramatic summer-blooming companion. Of course, anything you plant with camellias will need to be shade-tolerant, but don’t worry about giving the camellias too much shade. As long as they get just a little sunshine at some point in the day, they will be fine. Use them to fill in the understory below crepe myrtles and Japanese maples. Scatter some hostas throughout and you’ll have yourself a perfect shade garden with year-round color.

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